Over the last decade disability studies as an academic discipline in Africa, particularly South Africa, has developed extensively, in no small part due to the commitment of Prof Leslie Swartz, a distinguished Professor of Psychology at Stellenbosch University (SU) with an interest in mental health and disability studies.
On Wednesday night Swartz, who is considered one of the most prolific and influential scholars in the field, was recognised by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) for his dedication to developing disability studies when he received the prestigious Science-for-Society Gold Medal for 2019. According to ASSAf, the medal was awarded to Swartz for “excellence in the application of outstanding scientific thinking in the service of society".
Swartz is the only academic in South Africa to receive a medal this year. The medal was bestowed on Swartz by Prof Jonathan Jansen, the President of ASSAf at the ASSAf Awards Ceremony held at The Capital Hotel-Menlyn Maine in Pretoria on Wednesday night.
For Swartz it was always inevitable that disability studies, an interdisciplinary field concerned with how and why disability inequality happens and is maintained in the world, would be one of his research focus areas. The first clue came in the form of his 2010 memoir, Able-Bodied: Scenes from a curious life, which chronicles his relationship with his disabled father, yet explores disability from an academic perspective too.
Swartz has not only concentrated on the development of disability studies, but has published over 250 articles in a range of international journals such as the Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society, and PLoS One. He has also served as the Founding Editor-in-Chief of the African Journal of Disability up to 2018 and is the Associate Editor for the international journals, Transcultural Psychiatry and International Journal of Disability, Development and Education. Under his leadership, the African Journal of Disability became a PubMed and SCOPUS indexed journal which is now a key player in the disability studies field internationally.
He is a Core member of the African Network for Evidence-to-Action in Disability (AfriNEAD), which is headed by Prof Gubela Mji, Head of the Centre for Rehabilitation Studies in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. AfriNEAD links disability scholars across the Africa, and also works with those from more economically developed countries like Norway, the United Kingdom and Canada. He is a Global Advisor to the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. He is also an International Advisory Board member of the Movement for Global Mental Health, “a virtual network of individuals and organisations that aim to improve services for people living with mental health problems and psychosocial disabilities in low and middle income countries across the world".
Swartz has also won many awards, amongst them the Stellenbosch University Chancellor's Award, and the Stals Prize for contributions to psychology from the SA Academy for Science and Arts.
Over the years, he has supervised more than 40 doctoral candidates, many of them disabled, black, or women candidates. Recently Swartz's ongoing project to mainstream disability issues into civil society in South Africa, which saw him receive funding from the NRF for a series of public engagements around disability and citizenship in South Africa, culminated in the book, the Palgrave Handbook of Disability and Citizenship in the Global South, which he co-edited. Other books he has co-edited include Disability and social change: A South African agenda(2006), Searching for dignity: Conversations on human dignity, theology and disability (2013), and Transformation through occupation (2004), which is widely credited with helping develop a social justice and public health approach to occupational therapy in South Africa and globally.
“Prof Swartz has played a leading role in developing the field of disability studies in South Africa, but has been dedicated in his drive to develop research capacity in people previously excluded from the academy and to making principles of scientific engagement accessible to the broader community. For this reason, he is sought after as an academic mentor and contributes regularly to the training of more junior researchers at a range of South African universities. His work is also regularly prescribed in academic courses in South Africa in psychology and other disciplines." said Dr Therina Theron, Senior Director: Research and Innovation at SU.
She applauded him for the central role he has played in diversifying the academy and as an activist “who takes scientific community engagement and linkages seriously". This has led to Swartz working with the Cape Town Holocaust Centre in 2018 and 2019. He presented a two-seminar series on disability and human rights as part of the travelling exhibition, Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race,produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and presented by the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation in South Africa. The exhibition focused on the abuse and murder of disabled people during the Holocaust and the links between these practices, eugenics in South Africa, and contemporary concerns.
Swartz has also given back to communities in need by offering free consultation services to those individuals who require therapy and is currently supervising the first ever prevalence study of mental health issues amongst Deaf children conducted on the African continent.
Speaking at the ceremony, Swartz said: “I am very grateful for this award, and I am deeply honoured. I would not have been granted this award without the help and support of my family, my students and colleagues, and without the many many people who have had the patience and generosity to allow me into their lives as part of my research and scholarly work."
“Stellenbosch University is a very supportive environment for me, and I am especially grateful for years of patient help from the Division of Research Development, the University library, and many others."
Swartz added that he was acutely aware of how privileged he has been to have worked with and alongside disabled South Africans and Africans from further afield to inform and expand his research in disability studies.
“They had good reason to mistrust me as a white, non-disabled South African male researcher, yet have given me the benefit of many legitimate doubts, and have allowed me to work with them. If this award is about anything, it is about the opportunities we all have to make a more inclusive world for everyone."
“I would like to encourage all researchers, regardless of discipline, to think about how their work can include people with bodies and minds which are not the norm, but which are every bit as valuable as other bodies and minds. We cannot do diversity or decolonise our universities without making all our work accessible to all – and this includes people with disabilities of all kinds.
Added Swartz: “Diversity, which includes disability participation at all levels, and accommodation of difference, will make our world, as the disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson puts it, more habitable for us all."
Photo: Prof Leslie Swartz (middle) received the prestigious Science-for-Society Gold Medal for 2019 from ASSAf at an awards ceremony held in Pretoria last night. Here he is with Prof Jonathan Jansen (right), President of ASSAf, and Prof Eugene Cloete, Vice-Rector: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies at SU. (Supplied by ASSAf)